Revisiting Our Hunt for the Oldest Levi’s® 501® Jeans

Levi Strauss & Co.
September 19, 2022

Heath Rackley of Lubbock, Texas, struck gold when he found a pair of Levi’s® blue jeans at the bottom of a Nevada mine. Dating back to the late 1920s, the well-worn work pants earned Heath the grand prize in the 1993 Send Them Home Search, the hunt for the oldest Levi’s® 501® jeans.

This September, nearly 30 years after the contest, Heath and his family visited our headquarters for another look at the winning pair of 501® jeans.

The Contest

Heath was studying geology at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1991 when he found the 501® jeans in an abandoned mine shaft. They had been worn, torn and discarded by a miner nearly 70 years prior.

“First, I noticed the stitched arches on the back pockets,” Heath recalled. “When I turned them over and saw the button fly, I knew they were 501® jeans.”

Levi Strauss & Co. launched the Send Them Home search on February 26, 1993, in celebration of Levi Strauss’ birthday. Fans were invited to send in photos of their pre-1960s 501® jeans. Then-Historian Lynn Downey examined each entry looking for features to date each pair.

Three winners were chosen, with Heath scoring the Grand Prize. He received $1,000 and a trip to San Francisco. Heath’s 501® jeans, which he marked with his name in marker on the inside, became part of the permanent collection of the Archives.

An Appearance on Oprah

Heath was invited to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show with the winning 501® jeans in 1996. “I was watching in the back,” says Stefani Rackley, Heath’s wife, who was his girlfriend at the time. “It was exciting, with Oprah wearing the white gloves to inspect the Levi’s®.” The 1920s pair included a back cinch and the unusual addition of a khaki pocket flap hand-sewn onto the right back pocket by the owner to make sure nothing would fall out.

As it turned out, Heath’s 501® jeans were old, but not the oldest 501® jean discovered. The Calico 501® jean, discovered in the 1940s by a teenage girl in Southern California, dates to the 1890s. And in 2003, Levi Strauss & Co. acquired a 501® jean dubbed “XX” that dates to the late 1870s.

Revisiting the Winning 501® Jean

This month, Heath and Stefani brought their three daughters (Mia, Savannah and Ivy) to Levi’s® Plaza in San Francisco to see the winning 501® jeans as a family.

“A flood of great memories around the Heath jeans (the history, the experiences and the relevance to our family) resurfaced,” Stefani said. “Heath was thrilled to lay his eyes on the jeans again as I believe the last time he saw them was in Chicago at The Oprah Show.”

By seeing the original Heath 501® jean for the first time and hearing the full story, Heath’s daughters were able to relive some of the excitement of the Send Them Home Contest.

Another first for Stefani and the girls was visiting San Francisco — the place where the 501® began almost 150 years ago.